City Casts a Critical Eye on Stores’ Sidewalk Art

Times Staff Writer

The sidewalks and walls are graffiti-scarred on the dreary, unfashionable eastern end of Melrose Avenue--an area lined with gas stations and auto body shops where a few artists and boutique owners cluster together, fancying themselves colonists of an outpost of hip.

Rae Chavira cannot do much about the abandoned storefronts that surround her 6-month-old boutique. And she is resigned to facing the broken beer bottles strewn on the street every morning.

But three months ago, she decided that the gum-dotted and badly stained sidewalk in front of her shop was just too much so, determined to improve the neighborhood, she hired an artist to paint over it.


City Not Amused

But the city did not take kindly to the transformation.

Two months after a muralist completed the brightly colored work, depicting a Navajo rug, in front of Chavira’s shop, and one month after the owner of a vintage clothing store nearby followed suit--painting the sidewalk in a black and white tile pattern--both shopkeepers were cited for defacing city property.

If the merchants do not pay to have the paintings sandblasted into oblivion soon, they will be subject to abatement proceedings and could face fines of up to $1,000, Los Angeles Department of Public Works officials say. The situation, the officials explain, is simple: The merchants have broken the law.

The citations have drawn the store owners into a world of regulations they do not put much stock in and do not understand. But Chavira and her neighbors say they are ready to go to court to save the sidewalk art. For the last week, they have been circulating a petition in the area that by Monday had more than 300 signatures in their support.

They say the dispute with the city could limit the revitalization of a neighborhood that has the potential to become a funky, low-priced haven for artists and shoppers, much like the now trendy, neon-bordered Melrose Avenue, a few miles to the west, once was.

“It’s not like we’re on Rodeo Drive and I’m painting Day-Glo sidewalks next to Cartier’s,” said Wayne Hannis, whose mural climbs cheerily from the sidewalk up the walls of his clothing store. “Over here, anything you do is an improvement.”

Los Angeles artist Billy Shire agrees. The owner of a gallery and three stores on the trendy other end of Melrose, Shire was one of the pioneers in an area that once resembled its eastern counterpart.

Called Charming

“What they are trying to create down the street is basically an alternative, because Melrose sure doesn’t seem like it anymore,” Shire said. “It is just charming, definitely not mainstream. I hope it never turns into what Melrose has become, which is basically an outdoor mall.”

City officials say improvements are always welcome. But the sidewalks are city property, and the shop owners have not been given permission to paint them.

“The bottom line is we can’t let anyone obstruct the public way,” Public Works spokesman Chuck Ellis said. ‘Our job is to do what the law tells us to do. We can’t interpret it. We can’t let people slide in one way or another. We have to enforce it.”

The city issued the citations on Aug. 30 and 31. Time has more than run out on the shop owners, but so far the city has not pushed the next step of the abatement proceedings--a public hearing. But, Ellis said, it will happen.

“I take this real personal,” Hannis said of the dispute. “I think it’s just stupid. I know they have their little rules and their suits. But that’s not the way we do things over here.”

Among the plastic skeletons, Guatemalan rattles and vintage cowboy boots of Chavira’s store--Y-Que--rules and regulations seem a bit out of place.

As Viewed by Merchant

“We didn’t get permission, but I guess we didn’t think we’d have to,” Chavira said of the sidewalk art. “I guess they’re getting ready to throw the book at us. But don’t they want this area to be beautiful? I just feel like I probably won’t be able to relate to their way of thinking. It’s a real different way of viewing the world.”

Chavira’s way of viewing the world is what drew her to set up shop in an area that she says “isn’t quite there yet,” where her closest neighbor is an office supply shop across the street.

But the neighborhood appears to be well on its way. Since a popular Caribbean restaurant named Cafe Mambo, owned by well-known Los Angeles restaurateur Mario Tamayo, opened last year in a lime-colored house off Melrose on Heliotrope Drive, four offbeat shops have sprung up around it.

The shop owners say they cannot afford the high-priced Melrose addresses to the west, and do not particularly want to be a part of an area that has become little more than a brightly colored commercial strip.

“We want to be sort of underground, sort of real eclectic,” said Chavira, who pays $1,750 a month for 1,800 square feet of retail space--about a quarter of what she would pay down the street. “It’s going to be good, this area. I really believe in it. If only we weren’t having this battle with the city.”